Will the city of Denver establish a commission to handle diplomacy with aliens?

three figurines - one green, one blue, and one red, with a checkmark under the green one
S&T: Pat Gillis-Coppola

This November residents of Denver, Colorado, will vote on a ballot referendum to create an “Extraterrestrial Affairs Commission” to “ensure the health, safety, and cultural awareness of Denver residents and visitors in relation to potential encounters or interactions with extraterrestrial intelligent beings or their vehicles.”

As an astrobiologist, I suppose I should be pleased that such a measure has garnered enough signatures to appear on the ballot. There is nothing inherently unscientific about the idea that aliens or their machines might have visited Earth. There are logical arguments, based on physics, evolutionary theory, mathematics, sociology, and analogy to terrestrial and human history, for and against why such an event might occur. Many UFO reports and alien-encounter descriptions are rather silly, and this creates a horrible signal-to-noise problem for anyone attempting to take the subject seriously. This has the effect of discrediting the whole topic among many scientists.

I do believe in aliens — as much as I can, being a scientist — believe in anything without actual evidence. A universe teeming with life is consistent with what we have learned about the history of Earth, the apparent requirements for life, and the materials and environments that exist elsewhere in the universe. Given all this, to propose that life, and even intelligent life, is unique to Earth seems the scientifically less plausible proposition.

And I am all in favor of any effort to raise public awareness of the cosmic dimensions of our existence. To think deeply about the possibility of alien intelligence we need to ponder our origin, evolution, and uniqueness. We need to wonder how a species might survive and live sustainably with advanced technology, and about how and why somebody, including our future selves, might explore or colonize the galaxy.

This ballot measure goes on to assume that these aliens have had thousands of contacts with humans, and yet somehow the government has managed to suppress general knowledge of their existence, and hidden their wisdom from us, including their cures for cancer and sources of infinite energy. Unfortunately, these aliens don’t seem like the products of a grand evolutionary process on some distant planet, but rather the inventions of minds that have watched too many grade-B science-fiction movies. They act like minor variations of human beings with whom we could establish diplomatic relations and exchange medical techniques and fashion tips. Sure, I like Star Trek, but I don’t want my government to waste time confusing it with reality.

I will vote against this initiative, as I suspect the majority of Denver voters will, once they read the full text and realize they’re being asked to require that their city government endorse a massive conspiracy theory about E.T.s who come right out of a movie set. But if it somehow passes, maybe I should volunteer to serve. There would need to be some changes in the mission statement. But would it really be so bad having a commission required to “create a responsible, responsive, common-sense strategy for dealing with issues related to the presence of extraterrestrial intelligent beings on Earth?” 

The most sensible way to do that would be to teach people about astronomy, biology, and Earth science, and encourage the public to think about our place in the wider universe and what it might mean to make contact someday with our cosmic brethren. This commission should also be charged with encouraging critical thinking and teaching people how to evaluate evidence and avoid being taken in by bogus claims.

This article originally appeared in print in the November 2010 issue of Sky & Telescope. Subscribe to Sky & Telescope.


You must be logged in to post a comment.